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2013 Travel Diary #20: The temple of a thousand pagodas

Three of the countless pagodas at Unjusa
Three of the countless pagodas at Unjusa. On the left, the nine-storey stone pagoda is Treasure #796

Unjusa, Hwasun-gun, Wednesday 11 September, 3:45am. My phone wakes me up at 3:45 am, and I struggle into my trousers, splash some water onto my face, and make my way to the main shrine. I’m the first one there, and soon Kyung-sook arrives, then Wonsan himself. Later, a couple of the temple women join us.

Unjusa: the main shrine before morning prayer
Unjusa: the main shrine before morning prayer

Morning prayer is at least three times as long as evening prayer. Wonsan sings the sutra, and we follow his thin voice and repeating phrases as he circles around the outside of the shrine. It’s difficult to follow which direction he is walking, but it sounds like he is pacing around each of the two shrine buildings, encompassing them in a wide loop three times before returning to the main altar where the rest of us are seated cross-legged, giving thanks that the mosquitoes have miraculously vanished.

The service has been tranquil enough not to wake me up too much, so I return to my room to get a little more sleep before breakfast.

There’s no sunrise, the sky being dense with cloud. The promise is for another hot, sweaty day as we set off up into the hills to see some more of the stone buddhas and pagodas. They are everywhere; and, taking advantage of the superb location, the hills are also full of private burial plots.

Unjusa is mentioned in an early Joseon dynasty geography text called the Dongkuk Yeoji Seungnam (동국 여지 승람 – The Augmented Survey of the Geography of Korea). Its unique feature was the amount of stonework and statuary: a thousand stone Buddhist images and a thousand stone pagodas.

Why there was so much stonework at Unjusa is not known. There is a myth that at one point in the distant past the Korean peninsula was unbalanced: with all the mountains on the Eastern side of the country, it was in danger of capsizing. To prevent the impending disaster, a monk called Doseon summoned down some stonemasons from heaven to provide some ballast on the western side of the peninsula. The deal was, he only had them for one night. They worked all night carving stone buddhas and erecting pagodas, and at dawn they had to put down their tools and go back home. As the cock crowed they were still working on the two giant statues which lie on the bedrock at the top of the hill, and which they had to leave unfinished. These were the two unfinished statues we had seen the previous evening, and which are known as “Wabul” (와불): The Stone Statues of the Lying Buddha (and Jeollanam-do Tangible Cultural Property #273). According to the Cultural Heritage Administration website1, the name of the temple, Unjusa, is a reference to the fact that, from the geomantic perspective, the land is in the shape of a moving ship – which thanks to the emergency work of the divine stonemasons is now stable.

A more pedestrian explanation of the plethora of statues is that Unjusa was once a school for stonemasons. The experts say that the style is similar to other localised stone Buddhas from the Goryeo dynasty, but there are some unique features to the Unjusa collection. The statues have “flat and folksy facial features, pillar-shaped bodies, awkward and unsymmetrical arms and hands,” according to one of the signs in the temple grounds, together with coarse but geometrically regular creases on the clothes. As for the pagodas, they are characterized by the relief and line carvings of geometric patterns such as crosses, diamonds and parallel notches on the surface of the stone.

Although the temple was once known for its thousand pagodas and thousand stone buddhas, today there are only around 100 buddhas and 21 pagodas of various sizes (from 3 to 9 storeys). The majority of the pagodas are tall and thin, with a square cross-section. Their roof stones are flat, suggesting a date in the Goryeo Period. But a couple of them are startling in appearance. Just in front of the main entrance to the temple is a pagoda which has circular layers, like a stack of pancakes, while up on the hillside is one which looks like a kebab of marshmallows – though the official title of this latter four-tiered structure, which is Jeollanamdo’s Tangible Cultural Property #282, is the Rice-Bowl-Shaped Multi-Storied Stone Pagoda.

The original site of Unjusa
The original site of Unjusa, in the hills above the current temple (photo: Cultural Heritage Administration)

The present Unjusa, which is designated Historic Site #312, is unusual in its location for a Buddhist temple in the countryside: at the bottom of a broad valley rather than nestling up in the hills. Somewhere up in these hills is the location of the old temple, which extended back to Goryeo and Silla dynasty times. Wonsan was unaware who had built it and when; or indeed when and how it was destroyed, but he had told us of its general location. Archaeologists from Jeonnam University Museum have conducted four excavations in the area in the 1980s and 1990s and have found nothing to clarify details of the former monastery. The present day temple was built as recently as 1979, the year of the assassination of Park Chung-hee, though Wonsan assured us there was no connection between the two events.

From the surrounding hillsides it is possible to get a view of the temple which takes in the whole site.

Down in the valley, in front of the temple, is the unusual pair of back-to-back Buddha statues sitting in their own stone cabin with a roof like that of a hanok. Their faces are simple and stiff, typical of local styles developed in the Goryeo dynasty. The object is so unusual that it has been designated Treasure #797. One of the buddhas peeps out of his cabin at Treasure #798: the 5.8 metre high pagoda mentioned above, with seven circular storeys that look like a stack of pancakes. The other buddha’s gaze is fixed on Jeollanam-do’s Tangible Cultural Asset #278, a more conventional square-shaped seven-storey stone pagoda. And in the distance, the first pagoda you encounter as you walk towards the temple from the main entrance, is Treasure #796, a nine-storey stone pagoda,

Another seven-storey square stone pagoda, Jeollanam-do’s Tangible Cultural Asset #281, is on the western slopes of the valley, standing over seven big circular stones which are arranged in the shape of the Seven Stars of the Northern Ladle (북두칠성 – Great Bear if you’re British or Big Dipper if you’re American). The Spirit of the Seven Stars is a shamanistic spirit which, along with the Sanshin (Mountain Spirit) and the Dokseong (the Lonely Saint) has been absorbed into Korean Buddhism.

There are countless Buddha statues throughout the hills and valley in whch Unjusa nestles: free-standing, propped up against a rock, or even images carved into the rock-face. It is no wonder that the area is a mecca for photographers. It is a place which merits more than one visit, maybe at different times of the year, to capture the special spirit of the area. But for us, it was time to head back to Sancheong.

We had strolled around for an hour or so, taking in all the views, and returned to the temple buildings to say farewell to Wonsan. He declined my envelope containing a contribution to overnight expenses, so I posted it into the collection box at the front of the main shrine.

Two of the many statues at Unjusa


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  1. Entry relating to Unjusa’s nine-storey stone pagoda, Treasure #796. []

2 thoughts on “2013 Travel Diary #20: The temple of a thousand pagodas

  1. I’ve recently been re-editing the English descriptions of National Treasures on the CHA website, including those at Unjusa. They really need re-translating, or possibly even re-writing in Korean, but I gathered the CHA works on a tight budget.

  2. Thanks for your work Michael – while the English in the CHA website has not always been perfect, the website is a great resource. It’s good that they’re investing a little bit.

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